Parenting has a naturally cloying flavor. Your child is the bright, colorful center of your world, and, beyond them, there are just dull gray tones. Before I owned a kid, I understood this conceptually. It’s impossible not to notice other people’s children even when you don’t have one tugging at your hand.
They stand in the middle of moving crowds, cry when the rest of the world is silent, and wave at every face they see, oblivious to the failures lurking behind the eyes of grown-ups. Conceptual children are simple, though. They dole out miniature high-fives and crisp the nervous edges of your middle aged friends.
Real children – which is to say, your children – are very different.
My son, Max, is all of the things all children are, but he’s also a constant source of revelation. Minor interactions with him teach me things about myself and about the lives of everyone around me.
Most of the time, the lessons are about the kind of person I am or the way the world works. Why does daddy ride his bike? To be healthy and to have more time with his son. Why can’t we lock doors? Because it makes daddy worry about a) your safety and b) how quickly you’ve grown up.
Sometimes the lessons have practical implications and, occasionally, they have business implications. I’ll try to keep the oohing and ahhing to a minimum, but it’s going to crop up occasionally. You’ve been warned.
Value is perfectly relative
There have been a lot of times in my life where I’ve thought of things as having intrinsic value. We will always have disagreements about those values, but sometimes there’s undeniable value in something.
I don’t believe that anymore.
I’m a sentimental guy by nature. I have unreasonable attachments to things that have historic or personal value. When I was little, my uncle gave me a Mets jacket that I adored. This was in the late 1980s when the Mets were both good and managed by my mother’s cousin. It was the gem in a collection of Mets baseball cards, stickers, action figures, and other collectibles.
By the mid-nineties, my fascination with baseball all but disappeared. The 1994 strike – the not working kind, not the over-the-plate kind – was my first introduction to the business of sports and it crushed me. After a childhood full of late nights watching extra innings and homemade scorecards on green-lined graph paper, I’ve lived the rest of my life with less than a handful of games that I genuinely cared about the outcome of.
This jacket was so important to me that I never wore it. It hung in my closet until it no longer fit. I was terrified of losing this thing that my relative had given me.
As a father, I haven’t lost my possession anxiety entirely, but it’s been much diminished.
The box is more valuable than the toy
Max is at the age where children find happiness in almost anything given to them. New shoes with Velcro he can do himself, a toy car from the neighbors’ kitchen junk drawer, and the thin green bags from the produce aisle all bring a smile to his face.
These days, if I thought it would make him smile, I’d let him play with almost any heirloom. They’re all his anyways.
Businesses tend to think that their products and services have some value because they took work. “We put years into this, it must be worth $X,” where $X is always much higher than you expect.
Things don’t work that way, though. It’s why Twitter’s stock does so poorly. Things that are interesting, new, hard to develop, or even useful aren’t the same as things that have value. Value is generated by perception. Always. Every single time.
Gold is valuable because we perceive its usefulness. The work I do is valuable because you’re reading this and Google appreciates that (I do too, by the way). What your business does has value only when it’s measured against the happiness or value someone else derives from it.
When a kid finds value in a “worthless” thing, adults make all kinds of jokes about how they’d rather play with the box than the toy inside the box. You know what that means? The box is more valuable to the kid.
Nothing is unquestionable
There are few lessons in life more frustrating than the discovery that a parent saying something just means it’s the way of the world. “Because I said so,” is both one of my least favorite phrases and one I’m trying to get my son to understand.
I want him to understand because I want him to listen when time is an issue. When he’s running toward the street and I tell him to stop, I want him to stop. There is a reason for my asking him to stop and we can talk about that reason after he stops, but I need him to take on faith that I’m looking out for him, not trying to trick him.
But I also want him to hate the phrase and to chafe at the idea. Nothing should come without question. Even if you can’t answer the questions and you still have to do the thing, the questions are important.
It’s the basis of the elenchus, which is the basis of the Socratic method. Pose a question about how the world is or why something is the way that it is. Take the answer to that question and generate a new question based on the assumptions in the answer.
American law schools have used this very method to teach local attorneys and Supreme Court justices for centuries. It generates confusing patterns and can get you stuck in spots where answering, “Because I said so,” is cathartic and incredibly tempting.
It’s these cases, in particular, that I have to push through. They’re the best cases to keep letting him run down the path because they’re the cases that I have the hardest time with.
When he gets going, we’re in for a fun ride. Why are we going to Aunt Monica’s has a dozen steps before we’re suddenly talking about why we have to wear pants on the bus.
Questions in business
Disruption is as close an analog to questioning as business has. Disruptors aren’t people who see something dumb and fix it, they’re people who see something normal and realize it’s dumb.
This took me a long time to catch on to. When I was first introduced to Jeff Bezos as a business leader, I remember thinking, “So he sells things online and doesn’t make money. Clever.” That was just about as far from true as I could have been.
What I should have done is ask why he was doing the things he was doing. Bezos didn’t see a bookstore and think, “Oh I could do that online.” He saw the accepted truths that things had to be purchased from a person and, maybe more ingrained in our psyche, that someone had to sell a thing to make it a hit.
Behind the scenes, he also saw a huge opportunity to change the way goods were delivered, but the face of it is much more simple. Bezos realized that people don’t always buy people, as the old saying goes – sometimes, they just buy things. I just discovered that I’ve been buying things from Amazon since 1999. Not bad.
That was my freshman year of college. At the time, Amazon would chuck a $10 gift certificate into just about every shipment. I’d buy a $20 DVD and get a $10 card. Then another $20 and another $10. I wonder if his CFO ever hated him.
Children get the details because they question basics adults take for granted. This system works best with a buddy. It can be hard to keep answering your own questions without jumping ahead, but someone else can keep the mix lively.
Start in boring places and you can end up in interesting ones. “Why do we sell online” can become “Why do we need to sell more?”
Patience is complex
Patience requires two components – an understanding of timelines and a feeling of agency. I’m making this up as I go along, but I think that’s roughly right.
To be patient, first, you have to believe actions and outcomes should take a specific amount of time. I can’t be patient about things requiring a mystery amount of time. How long does it take to get from Milan to Minsk on the trains? I have no idea. If you just sat me on the train and told me to wait, I wouldn’t get anxious about the time because I’d have no idea how much time it should take.
The second bit of this, agency, is key in smaller settings. I have to patient with Max because I think I should have control over how long it takes to get out of the house. I also think he should have control over how long it takes him to do something.
People always say that having kids teaches them about patience, but what they mean is that kids are infuriating. Max takes his shirt off and walks into his Aunt’s room while she’s sleeping – ten seconds after I tell him to get dressed.
We’re late to everything. He’s taken out the trash on our upper floor six times this week. I wake up two hours earlier than my alarm every morning. Dinner takes him thirty minutes to eat, and twenty of those minutes are spent trying to cajole him into one more bite.
I love him.
What kids really teach us about patience isn’t how to be more patient, it’s how patience with other people works. I’m patient with him because I care about him. I want him to take the time to learn. I don’t want to yell at him about little things. I want him to be as happy as possible, and sometimes it takes him longer to get there.
You can be patient with (almost) anyone
I’m pinning this lesson on Max, but it might really have been one I picked up from Chuck Williams, the founder of Williams-Sonoma.
“[It’s] important to make friends with every customer and address them by name so they feel comfortable. It’s important to work hard and do your work in an orderly fashion. I’ve always liked to do things for people—and do them well.”
The key to this belief is making friends. You can like just about anyone. If you manage to like a bunch of people, you’ll be more tolerant of their foibles and foot dragging – literal foot-dragging, if you’re a parent.
If you can manage the rising frustration by tempering it with understanding and love, you can survive just about anyone.
Your work isn’t your life
I spend less time with Max than I want. I want to be with him all the time. No crisis at work will ever match the depth of a crisis at home. No joy at work will ever match the joy of Max at home.
The odd thing about life with a little kid is that you’re living it in a way they’ll never remember. They might be affected by the things you do, but when they’re little, there’s just a lot they won’t remember.
Last month, I was in St. Louis with Max. He has a doctor out there we’re seeing and I flew out with him out.
We went to the zoo, rode the little train, saw the elephants, and walked home – “No, daddy. Not home. Hotel.” – through the park. At the hotel, he put his pajamas on and I started to look for some food to order in.
“Let’s go to a restaurant.”
“You’ve already got your pjs on, buddy. I’ll just get food sent here.”
“No let’s go to a restaurant.”
After dinner, we’re walking home through middle-of-not-much St. Louis. We pass over some train tracks. I explain to him that Aunt Monica lives that way and Uncle Bryan likes the other way. Then a train rolls into view.
And we just stand on the bridge and watch the train. He’ll remember it in pictures, but he won’t remember the moment. That’s okay. I’ll remember it for him.
That’s life, and that’s what it’s all about.
Your life might be consumed by your work and that might make you happy, but the point is still about your life. If work stops giving you the happiness you need, it’s time for a change.
Other people make us better people
It’s not about having a kid, it’s about thinking like a kid. Max looks at the world with eyes that are fundamentally different than mine.
Seeing the world through those eyes makes me a better person, generally, but it also makes me better at my job. I think about the things I write in a new way. I think about the way my actions are reflected in his world. What am I leaving him and how can I make that inheritance more meaningful?
I don’t think Capterra has a software directory for making you a better person, so here’s a non-software action item for you.
1.Go find a person who looks at the world in a way that you don’t and be their friend.
Then you can talk about how happy they make you and you can look back on everything you’ve done with a sickly sweetness and you can be the one teaching people about the lessons you’ve learned from them. It’ll be fun and tiresome, I promise.
Good luck. Max says, “Bye bye.”